(Un)common Sense: Simple Thoughts for Complex People
Beauty is Only Skin Deep
By: Elliot Reimers
If you’re in terra incognita when it comes to the International Federation of Body Building (IFBB), I’ll give you the gist of it – genetic outliers that devote their lives to training, eating, and taking supra-physiological amounts of steroids to step on a stage a few times a year to display their freakish leanness and cartoon character-esque proportions (see the included pictures and you’ll get the idea). This past weekend marked the 38th anniversary of the IFBB’s Olympia competition (essentially the Super Bowl of bodybuilding). I found myself tuning in for the finale of the men’s bodybuilding competition and after watching Phil Heath take home his second Sandow trophy it occurred to me that physique competitions are becoming the antithesis of fitness and health. Most of these competitors are mutating their bodies into circus-worthy displays. If you disagree, maybe this picture of the reigning Ms. Olympia will sway your mind.
I won’t go off on a diatribe about IFBB competitors, but as sad as it is for me to say this, these “professionals” are no longer the example of what I envision when I think of building my body.
Bodybuilding—not a competition, a lifestyle
Bodybuilding, at its core, is not a sport or competition to just build muscle and get as lean as possible; it’s a lifestyle to improve your body and health. Bodybuilding should enhance other aspects of your life, not take away from them. It’s not a battle of vanity to look bigger or leaner than anybody else or feel superior because you have bigger biceps or ripped abs. Depending on your level of detachment from reality, I can assure you what goes on inside of your body is far more important than what your shell looks like.
It seems so common to hear people in the gym say they don’t want to be a bodybuilder; they just want to be lean and fit. Just because you don’t have aspirations to compete in a physique competition doesn’t mean you’re not a bodybuilder. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 60-year-old stay-at-home mom just trying to get back that youthful feeling or an 18-year-old with a raging libido trying to impress his high school crush with abs of steel. If you are exercising and changing your eating habits with a desire to improve your health and appearance, you are bodybuilding.
My first foray into a weight room happened because I was way too skinny to play high school football. Shortly thereafter, during a stay with my brother for the summer, I was shown the timeless documentary Pumping Iron. Suddenly, weightlifting became bodybuilding. I found myself genuinely enthralled at the prospect of being like Big Lou Ferrigno or the poster boy of bodybuilding himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger (side-note: You know Arnold has made it big in life when spell check just corrected his last name for me). I retired to the couch and nodded off to that film every night that summer, dreaming about building superhuman strength and Hulk-like muscles.
However, I was young and naïve to a lot of the stuff that goes on “behind the scenes” in bodybuilding/physique competitions. Whether it’s steroid use, growth hormone, insulin, or whatever, I wasn’t interested in that side of it all. I’m not going to debate about whether or not Arnold or Louie took their “vitamins” because if the answer isn’t clear enough I suggest you slap some cold water on your face, wake up and smell the roses. I also find bickering over whether or not steroids are safe to be an act in futility because the research is rather underwhelming on long-term health implications of steroids when taken in safe, nominal doses.
However, the health implications of their use in the amount that a typical IFBB bodybuilder administers is definitely not something the body will appreciate later in life. Myocardial infarction, hypertension, elevated heart rate, polcythaemia, sleep apnea, renal failure, impotence, enlarged prostate, gynecomastia (more eloquently known as “bitch tits”), and acne/oily skin are just the tip of the iceberg for possible complications from steroid abuse (abuse being the keyword here) 1. Not to mention most of these bodybuilders get so big in the “offseason” that they can barely make it up the stairs without stopping to catch some oxygen. What’s more worrisome is that most of them are aloof to the fact that many of the risks associated with steroid abuse are one in the same with the co-morbidities of obesity. Are these conditions anyone’s idea of healthy?
What is healthy?
You may be thinking, “What does it mean to be ‘healthy’?” I often find myself a bit perplexed to find a decisive answer to this. I’ve run this very question by several people who are avid about working out and watching their diet and the response was unanimous each time—no words, just a blank, silent gaze into the abyss. I would surmise that the reason many people are rendered speechless when the question of “What does it mean to be healthy?” is posed to them is that they are looking for an explicit definition to a term that is contextual; the term healthy is implicitly defined by the survivability of that individual. This is synonymous with Darwin’s definition for fitness, a term often used interchangeably with health.
Essentially, what this denotes is that organisms must adapt their body to their environment if they wish to improve their fitness/health; in this sense, health/fitness are relative terms. So how do we measure them in a typical human? Thanks to advancements in the medical industry we have many assays to examine one’s health: body-fatness, blood pressure, organ functions, lipid profiles, mineral/vitamin levels, heart rate, O2 uptake, endocrine balance, nervous system response, mental state, etc. Are these medical markers the “be-all-end-all” of whether or not someone is healthy? Certainly not, but they’re pretty damned good at telling you whether or not your current lifestyle is hastening the Grim Reaper’s expedition to your front door.
Is bodybuilding concomitant with health?
This segues into one of the most perpetual misconceptions among the public–that looks and health are reciprocals of each other. When you pick up a copy of Flex magazine and see an IFBB pro bodybuilder gracing the cover with mountains of muscle, do you just assume they must also have the perfect harmony going on with their inner health? Is there correlation between looks and overall health? I’d say so, but looks don’t cause one to be healthy or not, and they most certainly are not mutually exclusive.
Upon turning off my computer after the cessation of the Olympia webcast last weekend, I found myself pontificating over my interpretation of the term “bodybuilding.” Were these competitors the forerunners of the lifestyle that I love and hold dearly? Has bodybuilding ever been about being “healthy” or has it always just been about “looking” a certain way (even if that means sacrificing one’s health to achieve that look)? It’s disconcerting to think that bodybuilding is not synonymous with longevity and overall health, but how can you argue the opposite when you look at the ramifications of the extremes people will go to just to change their appearance: steroid and other performance-enhancing drug abuse, plastic surgery, implants, purposefully messing with electrolyte and water balance, working out nonstop, restricting their diet exclusively to certain foods because they are “clean” (a colloquial term for “healthy”), the list goes on.
My aim here isn’t to get people into a tizzy about whether looks and health have a linear relationship, but just to get the idea of bodybuilding (and fitness) back to what they’re meant to be about, being healthy and improving your physique. When you sacrifice one for the other, you are not building anything but your own casket. It’s none of my business if someone chooses to take supra-physiological doses of steroids to achieve a certain look, nor am I entitled to intervene if someone is morbidly obese and can’t resist the calling of the Big Mac. That being said, I will tell you that these extremes on the spectrum of physical appearance are generally territories of reduced health and longevity. I’ve always pondered what results would be found if a study was conducted on the average lifespan of an IFBB bodybuilder versus an obese individual; not to justify one or the other as being healthier, but just to get the point across that health is not solely an appearance. Health is a lifestyle.
This is why it’s enlightening to see the surge in individuals getting involved with drug-free physique competitions and powerlifting and other endeavors such as CrossFit. I definitely think these are steps in the right direction for people who truly want to live a healthy lifestyle and improve their physique. I won’t blanket those who choose to use steroids as being “unhealthy,” but I will say that they should never abuse them unless they’re prepared for the possible consequences to their health. In certain circumstances, steroids are indeed beneficial to one’s health and longevity, so it would be arrogant of myself to chastise them as a whole. As much as with any other drug, the difference between medication and poison is in the dose.
What’s healthy for you is what matters
The propagation of health as an ubiquitous term has led many people to believe wildly unfounded theories about what foods and exercises are the “healthiest.” Take, for example, Michael Phelps, a gold-medalist Olympic swimmer. I’m sure a few readers have heard the purported daily food intake he was consuming during his peak training for the summer Olympic games, and if you haven’t, here’s the gist of his 12,000-calorie diet (yes, that does say twelve followed by three zeros) 2:
- Breakfast: Three fried-egg sandwiches loaded with mayo, cheese and fried onions. One five-egg omelet. One large bowl of grits. Three slices of French toast with powdered sugar and three chocolate-chip pancakes topped with maple syrup.
- Lunch: One pound of pasta. Two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayo on white bread. Energy drinks containing 1,000+ calories.
- Dinner: Another pound of pasta. One whole pizza. More energy drinks.
Now most people would look at this and quickly write it off as being absurdly unhealthy, I mean come on, where are the organic fruits and earth-grown veggies that we all are told make up the quintessential “healthy” diet? This is where the context of healthy and unhealthy comes into play. Let’s hypothetically say Michael Phelps, during his strenuous training days, is burning a good 6000-7000 calories. Couple this with his basal metabolic rate along with his ectomorphic structure and you can be most certain he is up around the 12,000 calorie range for energy expenditure throughout the day. So if Michael Phelps were to try and meet those kind of caloric demands eating purportedly healthy, fiber-rich veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean beef, chicken breast, etc. he would find himself stuffed before ever reaching half of his 12,000-calorie demand. Eventually, he would be so severely malnourished and sapped of energy that the only thing he’d be swimming in would be a hospital bed of nutrient-infused IV drips and the only gold he’d yearn for would be of the chocolate coin variety.
Granted, 12,000 calories is a superfluous amount of intake for the vast majority of people (even most trainees/athletes). This is just the case in point that what is healthy for one person may or may not be healthy for another. Circumstances and environment are major influences on what will be healthy for an organism; there is no preset strategy for optimal health among all beings. If we look at the inverse situation of Mr. Phelps (which is highly prevalent in our drive-to-work-sit-at-the-office-all-day-eat-fast-food society), whereby individuals grossly exceed their calorie demands because of mindless grazing on calorie-dense, nutrient-devoid foods and their “exercise” is lifting their clicker finger to change the channel, which scenario do you suppose is worse for one’s health? The answer is they’re both equally detrimental to one’s health, whether it is malnourished Michael Phelps or obese Ronald McDonald (who, I might add, is the creepiest clown I’ve come across to date). Underweight, overweight, excess body-fat, too little body-fat, it doesn’t matter because in the end they all have ramifications for health and longevity, regardless of outward appearance.
General tips for improving your health
Yes, health is relative, but there are still general recommendations that can be applied across the majority of individuals that will enhance one’s life, so I’ll leave you with a few suggestions:
Bodybuilding is a lifestyle, not an intermittent activity
Don’t let your diet and training take away from other aspects of your life, There is much more to this world than training and restricting your nutritional intake; the demands and opportunities in your life should never be sacrificed just because of your egotism for thinking otherwise. The gym will always be there.
Balance, balance, balance
I’m not talking about hopping on a BOSU ball and doing squat thrusts like 99% of soccer moms at your local gym, but rather I’m talking about balancing your lifestyle. Obviously if you’re a student your priority is NOT lifting weights or eating a certain way, it’s about educating yourself. If you’re a 9-to-5’er, you probably shouldn’t be skipping your workdays in favor of training and eating. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a student or employed and lead a bodybuilding lifestyle, but it just emphasizes the point that there is more to you as a human being than just your looks.
Moderation is key
Avoid extremes if possible; don’t fall into the trap of restricting yourself to certain foods or exercises because you heard they’re “the best for you”. Enjoy your life a little bit! If you want some pizza, work it into your dietary intake. There is a reason “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) works…because its common sense! If you want a slice of cake or a donut, it won’t kill you. Just don’t pig out and eat the whole cake or box of Little Debbies.
Know what you’re doing in the gym
Always, always, always learn the proper techniques for exercises you perform. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to “leave your ego at the door” when you go to the gym. I’m always more impressed by someone who can squat ass-to-grass with 135 lbs than someone who does some quasi-hip-thrust-good-morning type movement with 315 lbs.
Be safe with your supplementation
If you choose to take performance-enhancing drugs please be aware of the aforementioned ramifications and legal issues that come along with their use.
OTC supplements are a billion-dollar industry, many are bunk, but here are some basic, useful ones:
- Creatine Monohydrate
- Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
- Protein powders (technically this is just a food “supplement”)
- Fish Oil/Omega-3s
–As always, consult your licensed physician and/or pharmacist before beginning a supplement or specialized nutritional regimen.
Eat according to your goals
It’s hard for me to even give a general recommendation for the masses about what they should eat because it’s completely relative to your goals, lifestyle and metabolic functioning. If you need a general idea of what your macronutrient intake should look like, try this calculator: Macronutrient Calculator
It is definitely important to ingest sufficient dietary fiber, micronutrients and essential fatty acids; these maintain intestinal integrity, assist with mineral balance, heart health and blood lipids. If you choose to supplement with a multi-vitamin or Omega-3s that’s fine as well.
As far as food choices, this is completely up to you, but the majority of people could stand to benefit by emphasizing whole grains, lean meats/poultry, fruits, vegetables, and unsaturated fat sources like various nuts and oils. This doesn’t mean these sources of food have to constitute your whole diet, but just that they provide good amounts of dietary fiber and micronutrients so you will likely benefit from eating them in some capacity.
Do it because you want to and do it for yourself
This may sound selfish, but the reality of this journey is that nobody but you stands to directly benefit in the end. If you aren’t internally motivated to improve your lifestyle and health, you’ll never stick to any sort of regimen because the goal of impressing others is transient and wears off when you realize how shallow that is. It’s your life, your body, your health, so why do you care what others have to say about any of those things if you’re happy with what you’re doing? It sounds corny, but life is about being healthy and happy, so do what needs to be done and is conducive to those things.
1. “Testosterone Side Effects | Drugs.com.” Drugs.com | Prescription Drug Information, Interactions & Side Effects. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2012. <http://www.drugs.com/sfx/testosterone-side-effects.html>.
2. “Michael Phelps Diet.” Michael Phelps. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2012.
About Elliot Reimers
Occupation/Education: Lab Research Assistant; pursuing BS in Biochemistry at the University of Minnesota with hopes of graduate studies in Clinical Endocrinology.
Training Ambitions: 1000lb or higher 3-lift total in the 165lb-class in a raw powerlifting meet, and help others achieve their goals.
About Me: I have been weight training since high school and it has grown into a passion of mine ever since. Moreover, I’ve spent countless hours researching nutrition, weight lifting, cardio, supplements, etc. I thoroughly enjoy the science behind how the human body works and implementing research findings to improve our health and physiques; knowledge is useless until you put it into action.